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If you're writing a white paper, issue brief, article, analysis, or report, what's the best way to conclude that document?

In my work as a writing coach, I've seen many clients struggle with writing conclusions. Usually, this struggle happens because people are missing the point about what a conclusion is actually supposed to do. Once you understand this, good conclusions practically write themselves.

Here's the secret to writing effective conclusions...

An effective conclusion PROPELS READERS TO ACTION that furthers your goals.

In the working world, people rarely write for the sheer joy of writing. Rather, they hope that their document will have an effect in the world—such as making their products, services or company look good; helping people understand or do something well; and raising awareness of an issue.

In short, if you think about your work-related writing not as a static product but as a kinetic process that your readers experience, your document can make things happen!

For you to make things happen, people must read your document and then do something with your information. For instance, they might use your document in making decisions, forming opinions or influencing the opinions and decisions of others. They may follow your instructions to complete a task or assess a situation or option. They may alter their priorities. They may recognize new opportunities, problems or risks. And so on.

The “and then do something” part is where your document's conclusion comes in. Your conclusion should move readers from information to action.

Clarify your goals—that is, what you want to happen because people have read your document. Then, figure out what your readers can do to make those effects happen. Once you know these things, write a conclusion that

  • Briefly restates your main points (no history or details)
  • Nudges people toward your goals
  • Shows readers why your goals are in their interest
  • And indicates what they can do next

Also, an effective conclusion is BRIEF! If you keep it to about 300 words, it can be read in a minute or less. This will keep your readers from getting bogged down just when you want them to act.

‘But that's not what I learned in school!'

Exactly! In school, you were probably taught something like this advice from St. Cloud University:

A conclusion should

  • stress the importance of the thesis statement,
  • give the essay a sense of completeness, and
  • leave a final impression on the reader.

The academic “recap and synthesize” approach to a conclusion is fine for schoolwork or scholarly essays. However, for work-related writing, a flat, academic-style conclusion is like quicksand at the end of a runway. It will bore your readers just when you want them to feel stimulated and motivated. Bored readers probably won't help you further your goals.

Here are examples of effective to flat conclusions

  1. Effective: The conclusion to RESNET's white paper, Using Home Energy Ratings to Improve Energy Code Implementation is written in a way that really gets the reader going. Notice that the conclusion is titled “Blue Print for Action”—which is far more action-oriented than “conclusion.” This section could used some editorial fine-tuning, but at 349 words it's a fairly manageable length, from the reader's perspective.

    Even if your goal is simply to educate readers about a topic, not to push particular viewpoints or solutions, you can still nudge your readers to figure out how your topic relates to them.

  2. Almost, but not quite: The conclusion (“closing”) of this 2003 issue brief from the Renewable Energy Power Project (REPP), Wind Energy for Electric Power, reflects the informational intent of this document and urges readers to read more. However, is that necessarily the best use of this conclusion?

    After reading 24 well-researched pages on wind energy, I think most readers would be daunted by the prospect of yet more pedantic research. In addition to recommending further reading, the authors could have tried a useful trick for motivating readers to discuss the topic: asking questions.

    For instance, this conclusion could include a paragraph like this:

    What kind of economic and environmental potential does wind energy have in your region? How might it benefit your region, utility or organization? The resources recommended in the appendix can help you assess your local situation. Also, raising the topic of wind energy in discussions with local utility, business, government and community leaders can yield a useful array of options and issues to consider, as well as creative synergies for practical and economical wind energy solutions.

  3. Flat, flat, flat: The “conclusions” section of this Objectivity Inc. white paper, Objectivity/DB in Telecommunications Applications is concise (just 168 words)—but it contains zero energy! It leaves the reader flat, with no direction. While it boasts of Objectivity's experience, it fails to direct readers on how to consider their own database needs and how Objectivity might help. Although this conclusion may appear very directly promotional, it actually has the effect of “anti-marketing.”

How effective are your conclusions?

Look over some recent documents published by your organization. Do they succeed in propelling readers toward action that furthers your goals? Is it even clear what your goals are? If your articles, issue briefs, white papers or reports tend to fall flat and fail to motivate, honing your conclusions could spur more action and interest.

If you're not sure how effective your conclusions now, email me links to a couple of online examples of your organization's recent report- or article-style work, and I'll give you some quick feedback.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amy Gahran is an editorial consultant, journalist and writing trainer/coach based in Boulder, Colorado. She helps people and organizations communicate effectively online and in print. For more info, see gahran.com. She also publishes the CONTENTIOUS blog, which offers news and musings on how we communicate in the online age.